Ann Patchett leads a busy life: her novel Commonwealth is being released in September by Harper, her recent vacation in Norway with her husband included an assignment for Condé Nast, and she is co-owner of indie Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.—where there’s always work to be done.
“I was up half the night mopping,” Patchett says. “The bookstore is expanding. We’ve taken over the store next to us and had the wall torn down. Last night we were putting books on the shelves and cleaning the floors. The construction workers were supposed to mop, but they mopped like men, which is to say the floor was filthy beyond imagination. They would put the mop in the bucket, and then they would run it around, and then they would put the mop back in the bucket, and then they would run it around again. That’s just moving the dirt!” Still, gracious and practical, she works through a variety of scheduling issues—mine as well as hers—so that we’ll have the time to talk about Commonwealth.
“I’ve always been writing this story,” Patchett says of Commonwealth. “A group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a community, a family.” A sampling of her past novels supports this description. The Patron Saint of Liars (1992) takes place in a home for unwed mothers. Bel Canto (2001) portrays a group of hostages, including an American opera star, held somewhere in South America. State of Wonder (2011) follows a medical researcher as she tracks down her former professor, now living with an indigenous tribe deep in the Amazonian rainforest. In Run (2007), an accident connects some of Boston’s poorest citizens with its most powerful.
Commonwealth focuses on a family reconfigured by divorce and spans 50 years. “I’m drawing more directly from my own life for the characters and action,” Patchett says. “But it’s the same emotional content I used in Bel Canto to describe what it was like to be held captive with a group of people you don’t know.”
The family in Commonwealth starts out as two separate families: the Keatings (Fix and Beverly; their two girls, Caroline and Franny) and the Cousins (Bert and Teresa; their boy, Cal; their girls, Holly and Jeanette; plus baby Albie on the way). Bert’s flirtation with Beverly at a christening party changes the domestic landscape. Beverly divorces Fix, and Bert divorces Teresa. Bert and Beverly marry and relocate from California to Virginia, taking Fix and Beverly’s daughters with them. Teresa is left to raise her and Bert’s four children alone.
Patchett clarifies that this family portrait, though inspired by autobiography, is only vaguely autobiographical. For example, whereas Fix shares Patchett’s father’s history, their personalities differ. “They’re both cops in L.A., but my father was an extremely private person, a much more sophisticated man. That said, my father died while I was writing this book, and the details of taking care of someone with a terminal illness and the suffering that comes with a very prolonged death—those things come straight from life. Both my stepfathers are in very poor health right now, and sometimes I want to pull the book back and write more because there is so much to say about this journey of caretaking and who bears the responsibility.” She adds, “Emergency rooms are a motif for me. I think someone gets stitches in all my novels.”
As for the Keating-Cousins in particular, Patchett speaks about their nature as a blended family. “Those children are more blended than most families I’ve known. They make a scrappy little team.” The forging and fraying of
personal alliances is another recurring theme of Patchett’s work. She describes her idea of family as fluid. “If you spend a few nights at my house, I’ll start to think of you as family. I think the sense that Franny and Caroline—and Fix for that matter—feel toward Teresa reflects my vision of family: she’s one of ours, even if I can’t exactly explain how.”
This comment of Patchett’s refers to a scene late in the book in which Franny, Caroline, and Fix escort a reluctant Teresa to the hospital. One of this novel’s pleasures is its variety of settings and moods. Scenes set in the Hamptons are chaotic and humorous. The six children, together in the Virginia woods, are scary and magical. Among Patchett’s favorite scenes are those depicting Franny and Albie as their friendship evolves over the years.
Patchett recalls her own childhood with fondness: “The ’70s were a different time as far as parenting was concerned. People left their kids in the car with the windows cracked while they went to the grocery store. My girlfriends and I sold raffle tickets in rundown apartment complexes at night in our Catholic-school uniforms. We were free-range children. We were put outside in the morning and gathered back in the night—no T-ball, no dance lessons, no birthday parties. I loved the freedom of my childhood.”
Other themes in Commonwealth include the effects of tragedy, the corrosiveness of lies, and the power of storytelling. This last is most fully explored when Franny confides her family history to novelist Leo Posen, who in turn writes a novel about it. Albie recognizes himself in Posen’s novel and learns something he never knew. “At first I imagined Leo Posen as a playwright, and Albie accidentally winds up seeing the play of his life,” Patchett says. “But I couldn’t figure out a way to get him to the theater.”
According to Patchett, her own family’s reaction to the book has been very positive. “They’ve been incredibly supportive, the same way they’ve always been supportive of my work,” she says. “We all tell our story, and we all hold something back, either because we think it’s trivial or embarrassing or won’t show someone in a good light. Novelists do it with people they make up. Maybe that’s what the book is about.”
Patchett resists my attempts to get her to characterize Commonwealth the way I would: as personal as the best of her memoirs, as affecting as her best fiction. “I do think it’s my best novel,” she says. “But in all fairness, I always think every novel I write is my best. You learn every time you write a book, and then you take that new knowledge and experience into the next book. Hopefully, every time you raise the bar. Every time, I try to do something that feels really hard: having 10 main characters in five locations over 50 years—that felt really challenging.”
We change the subject, landing on the bookstore, which, mopping aside, clearly gives the author great joy. “I love being able to promote books I’m crazy about,” Patchett says. “And I love recommending things to people in the store. Walking through the store and seeing people with books in their hands, I’ll stop and say, ‘What are you reading?’ And ‘Oh, if you like that, you should read this.’ Or ‘That one you’ve got is not so great: let’s put that back and get something else.’ ”
Patchett has just finished writing her latest blog entry for the bookstore. “This is such a good year for fiction. I loved Jane Hamilton’s book [The Excellent Lombards], and I loved Louise Erdrich’s book, LaRose, and I loved the Edna O’Brien book [The Little Red Chairs]. O’Brien rocks my world. And the Colson Whitehead out in September, The Underground Railroad, is fantastic.”
Patchett’s writing career includes seven novels, two memoirs, the Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner, the New York Times bestseller list, Time’s 100 Most Influential People list, and her early stint at Seventeen magazine. “The biggest difference then and now,” she says, “speaking as a novelist, not a Seventeen writer, is then I believed that if I had a good idea for a story to tell, it was worth telling and it was worth your time to read it. Now I have to feel like I am going to be telling something that I alone have to tell. It’s not enough for me to think I’m a writer, and you need to listen to what I have to say, which is what I thought when I was 25. At 52, I think this has to really, really, matter.”
“It’s a busy life,” Patchett says, “but who doesn’t have a busy life these days? I don’t have children. I don’t have a regular job. I don’t have the distractions of the phone and the Internet that rule other people’s lives. Still, there’s barely enough time in the day to play with the dog.”
And yes, Patchett’s already thinking about her next book. “I have a really good idea for a novel I’m excited about,” she says. “I just have no idea when I’m going to start it.”
Judi Goldenberg is a freelance writer in Asheville, N.C., and a frequent contributor to PW.